HUNTINGTON - As ludicrous as it sounds, a case can be made for Amareto Curraj as Marshall's defensive MVP.
The freshman kicker from Leto, Fla., has no tackles, no pass break-ups and surely won't be mistaken for one of the Thundering Herd's linebackers. But coach Doc Holliday has noted his value just about every Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
"The kicker being able to kick those four non-returnable kicks, that's a big, huge help for our defense," Holliday said.
Here's why: Many defensive players, generally linebackers and safeties, play on special teams, including the kickoff unit, where speed and hitting ability are critical.
So is stamina, which is needed the rest of the game for however many snaps those players receive at their positions. If they're chasing kickoff returners every time in this era of the return-unfriendly rules, they're at a disadvantage.
The Herd chased a bunch of kickoffs in 2012, with only six touchbacks in 83 of them. Opponents averaged 25.1 yards per return, but that yearlong figure is deceiving. In the last five weeks, that number swelled to 31.4 yards, with Central Florida's Quinton McDuffie returning two the distance.
A large part of that was the thinning-out of MU's coverage personnel due to injuries. That seemed to start early in the season, when Evan McKelvey tore his anterior cruciate ligament while covering a kickoff.
The coverage unit is getting less work this fall, thanks to Curraj. He has taken 37 kickoffs - all but the Herd's very first of the season - and has knocked 25 of them for touchbacks.
"It feels great I can actually do something productive for them," Curraj said. "Instead of coming back to the sidelines and having sad faces, they're all happy and smacking me and saying, 'Good job!' It feels good, you know, that I'm actually doing something."
Like many kickers, Curraj has a long soccer background, playing when he was 6 or 7 years old - not long after his family came to the U.S. from Albania. He played for Leto High, a competitive program in Tampa, Fla.
He played some midfield and some forward at Leto. He was excellent with headers, but also possessed a wicked free-kick stroke, one that served him well in the transition to football. It was a transition Curraj felt he had to make to play in college.
"It's hard to get a soccer scholarship, unless you play premier league," Curraj said. "You need to have thousands and thousands of dollars a year, and I didn't have that."